Prisoners of the Census

Record numbers of urban people of color are now in prisons in rural areas — where the census counts them as residents. Result? The prisoners’ ‘share’ of federal funds pegged to population counts will go to their keepers’ hometowns.


Since April Fool’s Day, prison guards have been slipping census forms into the cells of the nation’s nearly two million prisoners. “Your answers are important,” reads the accompanying letter from the US Census Bureau director. “The amount of government money your neighborhood receives depends on your answers.”

Well, not exactly. Not in the case of prisoners.

The near- doubling of the prison population since the last census and a rural prison boom during the 1990s portends a substantial transfer of economic and political power from urban to rural America. That’s because, due to a little-known census provision, prison inmates will be counted in the populations of the towns and counties in which they are incarcerated and not in their home neighborhoods. The result? Inner-city communities, from which large numbers of prisoner bodies are snatched, will lose out. The prisoner “share” of the nearly $2 trillion in federal funds tied to population counts distributed nationwide over the next decade will go to the mostly rural hometowns of their keepers.

Moreover, even though prisoners in all but a few states can’t vote, their numbers can affect how the lines are drawn and how political power is distributed. When the census count is used to draw legislative districts, prisoners will be re-apportioned to the largely rural (and Republican) areas hosting their prisons.

Prisons have become a growth industry in America’s heartland. An average of 24 new prisons per year were built in rural areas just during the last decade. These communities, hit hard by losses in agriculture and industrial employment, are now begging for prisons. Many prison systems now rely on a bidding process for identifying potential prison locales; in order to be considered “competitive,” small towns often offer financial assistance and concessions such as donated land, upgraded water and sewage systems, and housing subsidies for prison employees. In last year’s prison derby in Illinois, 27 communities competed to secure a new prison.

Prison boosters have also changed their siting practices, targeting economically depressed and politically impotent communities. State agencies, chambers of commerce, governors, and legislators now push prisons as “sustainable” economic development. “Prisons not only stabilize a local economy but can in fact rejuvenate it,” says a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections. “There are no seasonal fluctuations, it is a non-polluting industry, and in many circumstances it is virtually invisible.” Add to that incentives such as those which private prison companies have offered to potential prison towns: home price guarantees (should the price of homes surrounding prisons be deflated); the building of vocational training institutes next to prisons; and criminal justice scholarships to local universities, to name just a few.

These are powerful promises being made to rural communities populated by the poor and “working poor”. It is not uncommon for rural adult family members to be working at two or even three low-wage, no-benefits service jobs in an effort to make ends meet. With few prospects, many young people leave as soon as they can — a source of great distress in communities that have a tradition of children remaining close by.

Ironically, it is prisons that are reversing long-standing trends of population loss in rural counties. Sussex County, Va., a 496 square mile patch of peanuts, cotton, and hog farms, was recently declared the fastest growing county in the United States. The reason? Between 1998 and 1999, two new maximum security prisons increased the population there by 23 per cent. Texas alone built at least 48 new rural prisons in the 1990s; the Lone Star State’s Walker and Anderson counties each have 10,000 or more prisoners. In Corcoran, Calif., 11,000 of the town’s population of 21,000 are prisoners.

As rural communities gain inmates, they harvest federal cash and political clout. In Coxsackie, N.Y., prisoners make the community more “competitive” for federal anti-poverty funds distributed on a per capita basis. Because they earn little or no money, prisoners in the town’s two correctional facilities — who made up 27.5 per cent of Coxsackie’s 1990 population — drove down its median income on the census and made it eligible to receive more funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Since that time, the number of Coxsackie’s prisoners has continued to grow, and local officials acknowledge that Coxsackie will benefit even more from the 2000 census.

As the cutoff for the census approaches, more localities are rushing to get their piece of the pie. Last year, an Arizona law permitting municipalities to annex prisons set off a bidding war between the towns of Gila Bend and Buckeye for neighboring adult and juvenile prisons. Buckeye won, and as a result expects to reap $600 per inmate every year, amounting to over $10 million in census-tied subsidies in the upcoming decade.

Prisoner-exporting states have also jumped into action. Last year, federal legislation introduced by Wisconsin’s Republican Rep. Mark Green would allow states to count the prisoners they ship out of state as their own. In addition to the forfeiting of millions in census-based revenue, Green noted his concern for the potential loss of a Congressional seat as an outcome of Wisconsin’s practice of contracting with private out-of-state prisons.

While nobody is exactly sure how big the prisoner-related census windfalls for rural communities will be, one thing is certain: The big losers will be urban communities of color. Half of all US prisoners are African American and one-sixth are Latino. The vast majority are from places like East New York and South Central Los Angeles. As a result, these neighborhoods — which have already sustained years of economic and social crises and loss — stand to lose both more money and power throughout the decade.

What should be done? Aside from the obvious necessary steps to reduce both the numbers of people being criminalized and the numbers of new prisons being built — like getting serious about knocking down legislation such as California’s “Three Strikes” and Proposition 21 and their look-alikes in other states, curbing out-of-control cops, and taking the profit out of incarceration — we should insist that, for census purposes, prisoners be counted in their own neighborhoods. Taking Congressman Green’s lead (and maybe even his bill), federal legislation should be immediately introduced to protect urban communities of color from having to forfeit revenue and political power that is rightfully theirs.

If a change in this federal policy could be accomplished, one of the major economic incentives behind the rural rush to acquire prisons would be destroyed. Then perhaps we could get on to other important things like creating economic development plans which do not involve the enrichment of one set of poor people at the expense of another.